< Syria's Digital Crackdown


Friday, May 20, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: On Wednesday, President Obama signed an executive order to impose sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad, punishment for his regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. According to current estimates, more than 900 people have been killed in the street protests. But the regime has also been fighting activists online. As happened in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian protestors are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to organize and to communicate. Jillian York is director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She’s been watching the cat-and-mouse game between Syrian activists and the regime. Jillian, welcome to On the Media.

JILLIAN YORK: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me first how the protestors are using the Web.

JILLIAN YORK: Sure. So Syria doesn't have a very high rate of access to the Internet, but people are indeed on Facebook and on Twitter, just as they were in Egypt and Tunisia previously.

BOB GARFIELD: One of the impulses for an autocratic regime is just to shut down the Internet altogether or to impose on the ISPs to shut down access to Twitter and Facebook. Tell me how the Syrian regime has proceeded.

JILLIAN YORK: Syria has long blocked a number of websites. They were blocking YouTube, BlogSpot, Facebook and, you know, they block a number of political opposition sites, human rights sites, news sites as well. So Syria had been blocking all of these sites, and in February of this year, just as the protests were beginning in Syria, Syria decided that they would unblock BlogSpot, YouTube and Facebook. My immediate reaction was, wow, they're - they're going to be using this for surveillance. I mean, that’s the only reason that I can think of. As it turns out, they really did use it [LAUGHING] for surveillance.

BOB GARFIELD: It was a sort of fishing expedition on a grand scale, no?

JILLIAN YORK: The authorities first started arresting activists, and even some non-activists, demanding their Facebook passwords and then using, presumably using their accounts to spy on their contacts unknowingly. So that was the first thing that they did. But then more recently we discovered that someone – we assume the Syrian Telecom Ministry, but we can't confirm, of course – when Syrians were going to Facebook, using https, a more encrypted version of Facebook, they were presented with a certificate that most people would just click right through. But as it turns out, this was actually a fake certificate and allowed someone to spy on everything that you were doing once you logged into Facebook.

BOB GARFIELD: And what did the Syrian intelligence agencies glean?

JILLIAN YORK: Anything that you keep private, all of your contacts, your password, your secret question that you put in to, to regain your password if you've lost it, all of that would then become available to somebody conducting such an attack.

BOB GARFIELD: Pro-Asad forces did something kind of [LAUGHS] ingenious on Twitter, as well. One of the things they're doing is to employ a hashtag.

JILLIAN YORK: A hashtag is when you use the hash mark with a chosen word or phrase or numbers that refer to something intentionally so that when a person searches on Twitter for that hashtag they can find news about a certain subject. So in Syria, people have mainly been using just the hashtag #Syria. People, you know, probably pro-regime, perhaps affiliated with the regime, went on Twitter and created these automated bots that would then tweet information using the #Syria hashtag. And what these feeds were sending was, you know, photos of Syria - just a picture of scenery, for example, with the #Syria hashtag. And the purpose of this is to flood that hashtag so that when someone is trying to search for information about Syria, instead of coming across photos and videos from protests, they come across these, you know, banal images.

BOB GARFIELD: Not a denial of service attack, sort of a denial of substance attack.

JILLIAN YORK: [LAUGHS] Right, right.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what, if anything, the American companies that operate these platforms, Facebook, Twitter and so on, are doing to facilitate the protestors in their fight against repression.

JILLIAN YORK: I think this is a really tricky question for a lot of American companies and, and it’s one that I understand but that still frustrates me, which is to what extent should they take sides? You know, with Facebook they've really been cautious, as far as I can tell, to stay away from being associated with protests. And I, you know, I think that there’s some good reason they're trying to get into China. If they, if they become a tool for revolution, China’s going to say, no way. You know, at the same time, they've reacted to what was happening in Tunisia by rolling out an https and making sure that Tunisian users changed their passwords. You know, I haven't really seen them doing any – anything in response to Syria. Hopefully we'll make them see that this is also a, a pretty serious security concern. But, in the meantime, you know, I would just tell [LAUGHING] Syrians not to use Facebook for protest.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so you’re suggesting that it’s dangerous to use Facebook as a tool of the uprising. Then what? If not Facebook, what?

JILLIAN YORK: I mean, I think that’s a valid question. I mean, part of the issue with Facebook is that their policy requires that users use their real name. But then again, if they're using their real names, they're at risk of being, you know, detained, arrested or worse.

BOB GARFIELD: The world has stood in awe of the Arab Spring, but as protestors learned techniques for coalescing crowds and so on, regimes also had the opportunity to see what works and doesn't work. What has Asad learned?

JILLIAN YORK: Well, you know, I mean, I think that’s a really great question. If you look at Tunisia and Egypt, you've got the sort of dictator’s dilemma issue where, you know, in Tunisia they went in one direction by not blocking these websites – Ben Ali even tried to make a concession in his last speech to free the Internet – whereas, in Egypt they went in the opposite direction and blocked websites, and then shut down the Internet, of course. Syria has taken a completely different approach by unblocking websites and then using them to potentially spy on citizens. I think that they could target mobile networks in Syria and that would be a huge harm to the protests there.

BOB GARFIELD: Jillian, thank you very much.

JILLIAN YORK: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Jillian York is Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.